Police officers found the bloodied bodies of Al and Jeannie Mills in the bedroom of the couple’s cottage in Berkeley, California on February 27, 1980. Both of them had been shot execution-style in the head, according to press reports.
Their teen daughter, Daphene Mills, lay next to her parents with a similar gunshot wound, but she was still breathing. She died in a hospital three days later.
At the time, the triple murder garnered national attention because the victims were former members of Peoples Temple, a religious cult founded by preacher Jim Jones. The Millses turned their back on Peoples Temple before Jones and more than 900 of his followers died in a mass murder-suicide in Guyana known as the Jonestown Massacre, on November 18, 1978.
In the immediate aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre, city police provided protection to the Mills family for several days based on fears Al and Jeannie, along with other former Peoples Temple members, had about Jones allegedly setting up a hit squad to seek retribution against ex-members he considered “traitors,” the Washington Post reported.
Berkeley Police and the FBI investigated the allegations without finding evidence of a plot to eliminate Peoples Temple defectors. When the triple murder occurred nearly two years later, law enforcement officials could not link the grisly crime to the Millses’ involvement in the church. Instead, investigators focused on another member of the family who was home at the time of the murders, but survived the attack.
Doing Jones’ Dirty Work
In 1969, Al and Jeannie Mills—who at the time were known as Elmer and Deanna Mertle—joined Peoples Temple. The couple soon gained Jones’ confidence, rising to high positions in the church, Jonestown Institute Research Director Fielding McGehee III tells A&E True Crime.
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“You didn’t want to run afoul of these two people,” McGehee says. “They were definitely people who Jones relied on to do some of his dirty work.”
For instance, Al and Jeannie Mills allegedly intercepted letters a 19-year-old female church member had written to her family and gave them to Jones, who read the contents of the correspondence to convince the girl he was reading her mind, according to the book, Road to Jonestown.
In 1973, Al and Jeannie Mills went with Jones to Guyana where he established Jonestown, his vision of a utopian society for him and his followers. The couple brought along their five children that they had with previous spouses. Jeannie’s kids were Daphene and her older brother, Eddie. Al had two daughters, Linda and Diana, and a son, Steve.
However, the couple began souring on Peoples Temple after Jones refused to give them back three California properties they had given the church to manage, Jeannie Mills wrote in her memoir, Six Years with God.
In 1974, Jones punished Linda for fraternizing with a “traitor” by having one of his followers hit her with a board 75 times.
“Jim was counting the whacks,” Jeannie Mills wrote in her book. “I looked across the room at Al and I saw the agony on his face as he watched his daughter screaming hysterically.”
A year later, the Mills family escaped Jonestown, returning to California. They changed their names from Elmer and Deanna Mertle in part to void the power of attorney Jones had over their properties. They also feared for their lives because of their outspokenness against their ex-leader, McGehee says.
From the time they left the church until the Jonestown Massacre, Al and Jeannie Mills antagonized Jones by reporting his alleged illegal activities to law enforcement, as well as forming the Berkeley Human Freedom Center and the Concerned Relatives of Peoples Temple Members. The two organizations assisted defectors and raised public awareness about the cult, McGehee says.
“It became apparent who they were because they were very public in their criticisms of Jones and Peoples Temple,” McGehee says. “When you made a stink, you became enemies of the church.”
A Suspect Under the Same Roof
At the urging of Concerned Relatives, then-California Congressman Leo Ryan went on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown in November 1978. Jones had Ryan and three journalists accompanying him killed hours before the preacher coerced 618 of his adult followers to kill themselves and their 300 children by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.
Jones allegedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
In a rambling voice-recorded suicide note on the day of the Jonestown Massacre, Jones warned “Deanna Mertle” that “The people in San Francisco will not be idle… They’ll not take our death in vain.”
Despite their fears that Jones loyalists who did not die in Guyana would come after them, Al and Jeannie Mills’ concerns turned out to be false alarms, McGehee says. “A lot of those rumors were perpetuated by Jones to keep people in line,” McGehee tells A&E True Crime. “Jones talked about having people ready to take care of ‘our enemies,’ but I don’t think there was anything to it, especially after the mass deaths.”
Berkeley Police homicide investigators didn’t buy the hit squad theory either. Detectives zeroed in on Eddie Mills, who was 17 when his parents and sister were gunned down. Despite being in his room at the time of the murders, Eddie Mills told police that he didn’t hear anything. Even though his fingers tested positive for gunpowder residue, a murder weapon was never found. In 1983, Eddie Mills received nearly half of his deceased parents’ $500,000 estate, the UPI reported.
In 2005, a quarter century after the murders, detectives arrested Eddie Mills for the triple murder. But prosecutors declined to move forward with the case, citing a lack of evidence.
Eddie Mills’ half-siblings, who were adults and had moved out of their parents’ home before the triple homicide occurred, also claimed their brother was innocent. The same year, the Berkeley Police Department closed the case.
A Berkeley Police spokesperson and Eddie Mills’ half-siblings declined comment for this story.
Eddie Mills, who’s now living in Japan, also could not be reached for comment.
There have been no efforts by the surviving family members to revive the case, McGehee says.
“The case was pretty cold 18 years ago when Eddie was arrested,” McGehee says. “And it hasn’t gotten any warmer since.”